It’s up to Europe to show the way towards global refugee policies


Picture of William Lacy Swing
William Lacy Swing

Former Director General of the International Organization for Migration

Forty years ago, the world witnessed one of the Cold War’s turning points – the closing of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, followed quickly by the panicked evacuation of Americans and their allies from the region. What followed was the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing across the South China Sea. I witnessed this painful denouement as a young Foreign Service officer, and I was horrified by the tales of people on rickety crafts confronting fearsome typhoons and the predation of pirates to rob them of whatever they carried. That tragedy, and the concerted generosity it drew from the international community, now seems uplifting compared to what we are witnessing today.

In the late 1970s, when huge numbers of refugees fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos for the open sea, the world reacted swiftly by launching resettlement efforts that carried many of those seeking settlement to safety – first to Thailand, and then to the far corners of the world. Eventually, hundreds of thousands found haven in the U.S., France, Australia and even South America. Can the same happen for today’s generation of desperate refugees?

A tide of distress is surging from the Mediterranean onto Europe’s doorstep, but this time the world’s reaction is hesitant. Unlike when our leaders forty years ago pulled together to help, the sight of those in distress is pulling today’s leaders apart. The Mediterranean has already swallowed more than 6,500 lives in just the two years since the October 2013 shipwreck off the Italian island of Lampedusa. That single tragedy took 368 lives and horrified the world. Europeans swore such shipwrecks would never again be tolerated, yet at least three catastrophes have each taken twice as many victims since then.

This is not a Mediterranean problem, or even a European one. It is a humanitarian catastrophe that demands the entire world’s engagement. Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was not a matter for one hemisphere, nor was the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami. Those disasters were met by an outpouring of humanitarian action, and so must this one.

Europe must welcome those fleeing from conflict zones by raising resettlement quotas, issuing more humanitarian visas and extending Temporary Protective Status to citizens of countries in distress. We must also ask what policies we want to put in place to better prepare us for such challenges in future. Put simply, we need a comprehensive approach that covers all facets of contemporary mobility.

We need generous asylum provisions for refugees and others who have a strong claim to protection. But we equally need properly-designed labour migration programmes to enable migrants of all skill levels to access labour markets that are crying out for supply without having to risk their lives.

The bottom line is that we, the international community, have created a world in which mobility is the norm rather than the exception. We cannot go backwards. We must ensure that people can move safely and with dignity.

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